Sunday, January 21, 2007

2009 - Best Books of the Year

The Twelve Little Cakes, Dominika Dery.
Autobiography, 349 pages. Two pages into it, standing the bookstore, I have tears in my eyes - next two pages, I'm at home, swallowing down sudden lumps in my throat – because of the stingingly sweet and true voice of a girl who demanded to be born. Told with a sly humor, this memoir of growing up under the cloud of political disapproval in Communism Czechoslovakia is a testament – truly a testimony – to family loyalty, human persistence & the inextinguishable joy of life.

The Tiger Ladies: a memoir of Kashmir, Sudha Koul.
Autobiography, 218 pages. Lyric explosion of memory of the author's years growing up in the most beautiful valley in the world before Muslim-Hindu violence erupts. A beautiful evocation of a disappeared existence, achingly blind-eyed to the seeds of chaos that a later reader can read in the account.

Lud-in-the-Mist, Hope Mirrlees.
Fantasy novel written in the mid 1920s, 239 pages. Delightful medieval-esque setting and gripping plot of courage and of petty political maneuvering with believably endearing characters. Every character – even the slightest – seems to take the stage with an almost Shakespearian swagger.

World made by Hand, James Howard Kunstler.
Speculative, post-apocalyptic fiction, 317 pages. In a world without oil, climate-changed and after a series of pandemics, a former marketing executive turned carpenter, and his fellow residents of Union Grove forge a new life in a believably altered world.  Says the inside front cover: "a novel full of love and loss, violence and power, sex and drugs, depression and desperation, but also plenty of hope.”  I'd say the blurb got it right.

Gilead, Marilynne Robison.
Novel set in rural 1950s America, 247 pages. Pure and true. I don't want to give away more than that except to say that this book is far more than the sum of its parts: love and fear, the role of memory, hope with and beyond death.  This book lifted me up out of myself.

My Family and Other Animals, Gerry Durrell.
Autobiography, 273 pages. An British naturalist tells of his childhood growing up among his eccentric English family on the island of Crete - which from his young perspective teemed with animal, especially insect, life and was a boy's own paradise.  I read this aloud to 9 year old son, who listened enraptured and envious.

This Sovereign Land: a new vision for governing the West, Daniel Kemmis.
Environmental, pro-West, 263 pages. Interesting, though as a Congressman he has a definite ax to grind, but a persuasive argument that local solutions might be more finely tuned and responsive than any diktat out of Washington, D.C.

A River No More: the Colorado River and the West, Philip L. Fradkin.
Environmental, pro-East, 360 pages. On the other side, Fradkin is an East Coaster who has a passion for the Colorado River and feels it can never be protected without the objectivity of those outside the region. He writes intelligently, even passionately, but my sympathies are not with him.

The Wee Free Men, Terry Pratchett.
Fantasy young adult novel set in the sheep and chalk country of southern England, CD (or 263 pages). Deliciously funny and surprisingly and satisfyingly moving as well. A pugnacious heroine who overcomes evil forces with the help of a deliciously lewd and larcenous band of tiny men (led by the fearless Rob Anybody). Also A Hat Full of Sky, 278 pages; Wintersmith, 323 pages; The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents, 241 pages.

Ironhand, Charlie Fletcher.
Fantasy young adult novel, CD (or 386 pages). Sequel to Stoneheart, and like it, better heard than read silently to self. The quest continues through the streets of London and its living statues.  These books are great for cross-country roadtrips - read by Jim Dale of Scholastic Audiobooks.

Music of the Bible Revealed: the deciphering of a millenary notation, Suzanne Haik-Vantoura, translated by Dennis Weber, edited by John Wheeler.
Musical tradition and history of chironomy, 557 pages. Haik-Vantoura, a Jewish musical scholar of the last generation (her education postponed when Nazis overran Paris and she fled with her family to southern France - but it was during that time that she first began studying the mysterious notation in Hebrew Bible manuscripts), describes a system of musical notation that has almost disappeared from our sight – one based on ancient systems of hand signs, or chironomy. She sketches the history of chironomy in Egypt, India and into the Middles Ages of Europe. She also argues that the books of the Bible were songs, set to ancient music, and that our earliest surviving manuscripts of the Bible carry marks of this lost music. Her reconstructions are strangely moving – majestic, profound and beautifully wedded to the sense of the words.    For more info click links below:                                        
The Creation:

NPR Morning Edition, 1986:

Budapest: A City Guide, Annabel Barber and Emma Roper-Evans.
Travel, 187 pages. Visible City series. Lucid writing, inviting pictures.  A city of art nouveau facades, layers on layers of history, elegant public baths with little old ladies in flowery bathing caps, famous little cakes. What’s not to like?

Talking Hands: what sign language reveals about the mind, Margalit Fox.
Non-fiction survey of communities where sign language has naturally arisen, 354 pages.  Though written in “journalese” and disappointingly sketchy, the survey of many signing communities is interesting.

Visible Thought: A New Psychology of Body Language, Geoffrey Beattie.
Non-fiction, clinical and anecdotal observations about natural body language, 206 pages. Much more fascinating: by the psychologist of a British TV series, "Big Brother." Well-written, candidly sharing results of his gestural/ vocal communication experiments and engaging anecdotes from the TV series illustrating what body language tells us.

Language in Hand: Why Sign Came Before Speech, William C. Stokoe.
Non-fiction, history of sign language and its role in the devolopment of verbal language, 227 pages. Best by far.  By the founder of sign language linguistics - this guy writes with passion and lucid erudition and makes an interesting though controversial case about the roots of human communication.

The Mummies of Urumchi, Elizabeth Wayland Barber.
Non-fiction, language and textiles, 240 pages. Everything I've come to expect from this textile archaeologist and linguist. Eminently readable tracing of a population moving across Central Europe from remarkably well-preserved textiles in the Gobi desert and linguistic evidence. Barber is clear, enjoyable, fascinated with her topic, a genius at fine detail and the broader picture both, and eager to share what she's seen.

The Haunted Pool, George Sand.
Rural folk novelette, 167 pages, translated from the French by Frank Hunter Potter. Though idealized, the timeless characters and simple plot create the reverberating quality of a folk-tale. Details of French village life also appealing. I also enjoyed her novel, Countess of Rudolstadt (428 pages) - right up until the end when characters begin to speak in lengthy monologues (pages not mere paragraphs!) about their tiresomely Dan Brownesque Da-Vinci-Code "New Religion."

Greenwillow, B.J. Chute.
Rural village novel, 237 pages. As good as I had remembered from my girlhood - a slyly sweet book about a village perhaps in New England, perhaps in Southern England, where a young man waits for the Call that will drag him away from the farm he loves. Against a backdrop of various small village doings.

Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence, Geoff Dyer.
Autobiography/ biography, 242 pages. More about Dyer reading Lawrence than it is about Lawrence per se – but engrossing. And an evocation of the endless difficulty of putting words down on paper.

Little Lady Agency and the Prince, Hester Browne.
Fluff novel, 391 pages - which I blush to own.  Picked up at the airport. Fluffy, fluffy, and way too much fun. The double-entendres fly over the head of the innocently smouldery main character who dons a blonde wig, vintage corsets, pencil skirts, and a sudden and surprisingly straightforward assertiveness to counsel and coach clueless London bachelors in the fine art of gallantry and grooming . . . and you can already imagine all the delightful entanglements that leads to . . .

Girls of Riyadh, Rajaa Alsanea.
Semi-autobiographical novel, 286 pages, translated from Arabic by the author and Marilyn Booth. Four friends in modern Saudi Arabia look for love and a life of meaning. Sad stories, terrible limitations of choices, but also a testament to the buoyancy of human nature and the power of storytelling to effect change.

The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion.
Autobiography of a year of grief by an accomplished novelist, 227 pages. Middle child checked this book out twice from the library and insisted I read it. The story of Didion’s marriage and her year coping with the grief after her husband’s sudden death. Writing is limpid and electric without ever becoming self-indulgent.

Intrusions, Ursula Heigl.
Novel (autobiography?), 288 pages. Too funny and too true a tale about a mother of young children who also writes. The intrusions – not just her husband and children and their demands, but the whining of the characters and the bad advice of former writing teachers – all become part of the story.

Borrower of the Night, Elizabeth Peters.
Art historian mystery novel, 247 pages. A fresh novel from Peters (whose Peabody mysteries have become bogged-down by their own weight) about an art historian (who suffers from inordinate comeliness) and a lost art treasure.  Fun and clever.

Le Mariage, Diane Johnson.
Novel, 322 pages. While her other novels (L’Affaire, Le Divorce) are exactly what they look like from the cover – shallow, Francophile sex-plots – this one has a surprising depth and universality to it and a level of writing not found in the others. The ending is a little contrived and paranoid – and the two most principled characters jump into a lusty adultery with the obvious approval of their author – but the main conflict between the niceties of culture (esp. French culture) and the raw emotions of human nature makes for a revealing read.

Old Friends and New Fancies: an imaginary sequel to the novels of Jane Austen, Sybil G. Brinton (in 1914).
Novel, 377 pages. Unlike more recent attempts to write what happens next after the end of Austen’s novels, this one catches the decorum and keeps the characters true in this novel where all the characters of Austendom are connected somehow and all the younger siblings find their true love’s match with a lightness and wit that Austen may well have approved of.


suzanne said...

I found Gilead life changing. And loved The Wee Free Men--wait till you get to Wintersmith. I keep a list, too.

Emma J said...

I loved Wintersmith, too! So why do you think you keep your list?

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